Unprecedented growth in the Basin calls for an extensive road plan overhaul.
By Julie Anderson
As a 37-year resident of Odessa and now Ector County’s chief administrative officer, County Judge Debi Hays is proud of the contribution the Permian Basin makes not only to the Lone Star State, but to the nation. In fact, she has the statistics at her fingertips:
“The Permian Basin is the epicenter of energy production in Texas and serves a critical role in literally ‘fueling’ the American economy and our nation’s strategic defense,” Hays shared.
“The Permian Basin accounts for 57 percent of oil production in Texas, 14 percent of oil production in the United States, 17 percent of gas production in Texas and the United States, and over half of the wind and solar power in Texas,” she continued. “From 2011-2018, just over 31 percent of all state severance tax was produced in the Permian Basin.”
There is, however, another side of the coin. As a locally elected official who lives and works in the community she serves, Hays sees more than the success stats. She sees the safety stats, as well.
“I am concerned,” Hays declared. “I need others to be just as concerned as I am. There is a human element to all of this, and we have an obligation to make sure those people in the industry and those outside the industry in the Permian Basin are safe.”
In May, Hays was appointed chairman of the newly formed Permian Basin Regional Freight Plan Advisory Committee by Commissioner Alvin New of the Texas Transportation Commission.
“Commissioner Alvin New recommended Judge Hays as she has participated in every transportation forum concerning the Permian Basin whether in Midland/Odessa or Austin,” said Veronica Beyer, director of TxDOT Media Relations.
Hays is hopeful that recommendations and strategies developed by this committee may alleviate life-and-death roadway concerns while simultaneously sustaining and growing an industry that benefits the entire country.
Playing Catch-Up No Longer an Option
The plight of the roads in the Permian Basin can be analyzed through a variety of lenses.
First, there’s the logical lens. The roads in the Permian Basin were not designed or architecturally engineered to withstand the heavy loads required by the industry and the resultant increase in traffic, Hays observed.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, every new well generates approximately 1,200 loaded trucks; each existing well results in about 350 loaded trucks annually.
“The easements are deteriorating,” Hays stated. “Pot holes are large enough for a small vehicle to fall into and have to be towed out.” The impact on area roads is not a new problem, but it is a worsening problem, and those both inside and outside the industry have been seeking solutions for years.
Next, there’s the boom lens. In the past, the cyclical nature of the industry has allowed for times of respite where roads could be repaired or strengthened as funds allowed. However, this current boom has garnered worldwide attention due in large part to technology, creating a mentality that says, “There’s no stopping us now.”
Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been effective for years. Recent advancements have enriched the process, with horizontal laterals now able to extend some 10,000 feet, up from 4,500 feet just a few years ago. In addition, engineers have made great strides in well stimulation. The technology is widespread, affecting not only new findings, but creating a resurgence in the Permian Basin by increasing the production of older wells and underdeveloped layers. As a bonus, much of this technology is being developed within the Permian Basin, meaning quick and easy access. While no one has a crystal ball, this boom is projected to last longer than most.
What does that mean for area roadways that were not built with a boom mentality?
“We are behind,” Hays said emphatically. “We are a decade behind.” Road repairs and new and expanded roadways were needed before this most recent boom. Models and plans made within the last 15, 10, or even five years must be reconsidered because they are no longer in sync with growth, she continued.
“We have to forget anything that we used as a model of where we are going to be in five years,” Hays reiterated. “When those plans were written, we didn’t understand the technology in the oil industry.” Repairs and new roads are part of the plan, but they cannot be THE PLAN.
Priorities have changed, Hays added. For example, a road in the northwestern section of the Permian Basin is a high priority today due to the opening of new sand mines. These roads weren’t on the radar screen five-10 years ago.
Third, we have the population lens. While a new census is on the horizon, statistics already project a population of 500,000 in Odessa by 2030, Hays reported. Of course, that is only a prediction, and that may not come to pass, she noted. However, the Permian Basin has lured workers from across the country, many bringing their families who plan to stay for the long haul. “Man camps” are filled to the brim, houses are hard to come by, and overcrowded classrooms have made local headlines.
With the energy boom comes additional school buses, oil service trucks, freight trucks for goods and services, additional law enforcement, cable companies… the list goes on and on.
“So yes, our roads are overcrowded and abused,” Hays confirmed. There are more people working, more people taking their children to and from school, and more people driving to stores and shops.
“The infrastructure currently in place was not designed for the type of vehicle activity and high traffic we are experiencing today,” Hays repeated.
The Heart of the Matter
For Hays, the various lenses bring into focus a critical concern, a series of images that are fueling her drive to help find a new solution.
“We are dealing with individual lives,” Hays emphasized.
Suppose a gentleman staying at the man camp in Orla experiences chest pains or has a heart attack, Hays said. The closest ambulance is Pecos, about a 40-minute drive.
Hays pictures sand trucks sharing the road with school busses and the delayed response time should there be an accident involving area children.
“How do we get around all of that traffic that is crawling at a snail’s pace?” Hays asked. “These are the things I think about.”
The Permian Road Safety Coalition (PRSC) thinks about these things, as well.
The spike in industry activity has opened up ranches and brought traffic onto lease roads that have never received first responder service calls in the past, explained Scott Scheffler, executive director of the PRSC.
“If it takes 65 minutes to get a first responder to an incident, we could lose that accident victim, Scheffler stated.
In April, the safety coalition transitioned from an ad-hoc group of stakeholders into a full-time non-profit to help fulfill its mission to “make roads safer and road infrastructure better across Southeast New Mexico and West Texas,” https://www.permianroadsafety.org/.
In 2018, there were 245 traffic fatalities in the Permian Basin, Scheffler reported. This represents 10 to 11 percent of the 2018 roadway fatalities in the entire State of Texas. While all of these cannot be attributed specifically to oil and gas activity, Scheffler said the PRSC is taking a leadership role to address the overall road safety of the Permian Basin area.
“We can do better,” he emphasized. “We want to get to zero fatalities.”
A New Solution
The PRSC is a member of the Permian Basin Regional Freight Plan Advisory Committee, which conducted its kick-off meeting in May in Odessa with some 50-60 in attendance.
During the development of TxDOT’s 2018 Texas Freight Mobility Plan, numerous transportation issues related to the energy sector were documented, leading to the recommendation of a Permian Basin Regional Freight Plan covering 22 Texas counties (Andrews, Borden, Crane, Crockett, Culberson, Dawson, Ector, Gaines, Glasscock, Howard, Irion, Loving, Martin, Midland, Pecos, Reagan, Reeves, Scurry, Upton, Ward, Winkler, Yoakum) and two New Mexico counties (Lea and Eddy).
The goals and objectives of the Freight Plan, as explained by TxDOT, include:
• Integrate multimodal regional and statewide energy sector transportation considerations into the local and regional transportation planning, programming, and implementation processes.
• Identify the region’s energy sector-related transportation needs and opportunities impacting the Texas Multi¬modal Freight Network and statewide economic competitiveness.
• Identify and assess the regional freight network, including locally significant energy sector corridors and first/last mile connections.
• Examine the link between local land use and energy sector-related transportation demand and operations.
• Enhance the regional energy sector movement forecasting to account for the increased production and economic growth.
• Develop recommendations to enhance energy sector mobility and safety on the region’s transportation network.
• Document the importance of regional energy sector freight movements to the local, regional, statewide, and national economies.
• Supplement state freight data with local data collection specific to energy sector and construction activity.
• Support identification of energy sector transportation projects for inclusion in the TxDOT districts, metropolitan planning organizations, and local transportation improvement programs.
The Permian Basin Regional Freight Plan Committee includes TxDOT, MOTRAN, The Permian Basin Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission, along with representatives from the energy sector and other affected entities including water haulers, sand mine companies, utility districts, and school districts.
The Permian Basin Petroleum Association (PBPA) is a member of the Freight Plan Advisory Committee, represented by Executive Vice President Stephen M. Robertson.
“As the Permian Basin continues to grow in both operations and population, improved freight transport throughout the region continues to be a high priority,” Robertson said. “Not only will improved freight transport benefit the commercial sector in our area, but it should also improve the travel conditions for all those using federal and state highways.”
Hays will chair her first committee meeting on Sept. 19.
“Thinking one step out of the box will not be far enough,” Hays emphasized. “We are going to have to take three and four steps out of the box.”
Hays’ vision includes the expansion of road lanes, restructuring of frontage roads, exits, and entrance ramps, and the re-engineering of roadways. However, the Freight Plan will also explore alternate methods of transporting and hauling in order to take the pressure, stress, and congestion off current and future roadways. For example, a new freight airport could allow for mail and other supplies to travel by air versus road. Distribution warehouses could develop around that airport, allowing for a concentration of activity which will be easier to maintain. Rail lines could be used to lighten the load on area roadways.
As Freight Plan committees and subcommittees meet throughout the next year, data will be collected to determine common needs and source sharing.
“Instead of everyone sourcing from all different places, we could have one main location that receives that particular product,” Scheffler said. These roads could be designed for the heavier loads, and plans could be made to support those activities.
For example, sand used to be shipped in from various locations in the United States, Scheffler noted. Now, most of the sand is being mined in the Permian Basin. Specific roads could be targeted to deal with this type of heavy load and could be built accordingly with special attention to depth and surface materials.
“Instead of coming in from all ends of the earth, corridors could be dedicated to particular activity,” Scheffler elaborated. Water hauling is another example of a shared source opportunity.
The committee will be collecting data from in-vehicle monitoring services to determine where trucks are making hard brakes, indicating where roads may be unsafe or related turns may be unclear, Scheffler shared.
“My vision includes where we are going to be in 20-25 years,” Hays said. Part of that vision is broadening the transportation infrastructure to include alternative methods to take volume off of already-stressed roadways.
The scope of the committee work is expansive, as stakeholders will address the repair of existing infrastructure along with creating new avenues to keep pace with growth that, at this point, seems to know no bounds.
“We know the transportation challenges our region faces won’t get solved overnight,” Robertson noted, “but we’re more than willing to put in the work to improve our transportation network one step at a time.”
Funding the Vision
Hays is hopeful that once specific strategies and recommendations are developed, the State of Texas will prioritize funding to support the vision.
Lawmakers dedicated $250 million to road repair with special emphasis on oil and gas counties during the 86th Session of the Texas Legislature, Hays acknowledged. However, this amount is a drop in the bucket of what is needed to address the over-burdened infrastructure.
“If they can envision what we envision on the advisory committee, where the growth of the Permian Basin can go, which benefits all of Texas, then they are going to have to give us the funds to achieve that goal,” Hays stated.
“The entire State of Texas will benefit from their investment,” she continued, “and so will our nation.”
Julie Anderson is editor of County Progress Magazine, whose online version can be found at countyprogress.com. She was formerly editor of Permian Basin Oil and Gas.